Congolese media defend democracy

Press freedom and responsibility go hand in hand
From Africa Renewal: 
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Man reading a newspaper in Kinshasa Reading newspapers in Kinshasa: Media groups are striving to improve their quality and professionalism.
Photograph: AP / Christine Nesbitt

Since its founding in 1998, the non-governmental watchdog group Journaliste en danger (JED) has won international recognition for its tenacious defence of press freedom in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the vast central African country battered by decades of dictatorship, ethnic division and war. But when inflammatory reporting fuelled political violence in the capital, Kinshasa, in August 2006, threatening elections, the JED found itself in the unusual position of calling for stronger control of abuses by the media by the official regulatory agency, along with more aggressive enforcement of ethics standards by professional media bodies.

Within a week of the violence, the rights group convened a meeting of the country’s main journalists’ associations and media houses to demand an end to biased coverage of political events, even-handed enforcement of media laws by the official Haute authorité des média (HAM) and the relaunch of an industry-wide “tribunal of peers” to monitor compliance with standards of accuracy and fairness.

In a post-election analysis of media coverage during the campaign, the JED found that some newspaper, radio and television outlets were acting as a “propaganda press committed to defending the political interests of its own candidates and demonizing its political adversaries,” in a country where many private media companies are owned by candidates and political parties.

The press freedom group charged that some coverage resorted to “shamefully exploiting macabre images” of the violence, “inciting revenge and accusations, justifying crime and . . . cementing political tensions” between ethnic groups, parties and regions throughout the election campaign. “Worst of all,” the report charged, “state-owned radio and television stations took part in the general decline by siding almost exclusively” with the president’s party.

Media’s role vital

The stakes in the DRC were high. The 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda had touched off more than a decade of both internal conflict and external intervention in the DRC (formerly Zaire). Estimates of the number of deaths caused by violence, disease and the collapse of basic services run as high as 4 million. A fragile peace agreement was signed in 2002 and opened the way for the largest UN peacekeeping operation in history, the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC), which has nearly 20,000 international soldiers and civilians.

Some Congolese newspapers and broadcasters have worsened political tensions by disseminating “hate” messages Some Congolese newspapers and broadcasters have worsened political tensions by disseminating “hate” messages.
Photograph: AP / Schalk van Zuydam

Despite the UN presence, ethnic conflict continued in the eastern part of the country, and the election period itself was marred by clashes between supporters of the incumbent, President Joseph Kabila, and those of a former rebel leader, Mr. Jean-Pierre Bemba. Mr. Kabila was declared the winner of presidential runoff elections in October 2006 that Congolese and international observers declared generally free and fair.

Many saw the role of the media as vital to the success of the transitional period that began after the signing of the December 2002 accord. In a resolution adopted earlier that year at protracted peace talks known as the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, the warring parties declared that “independent, free, responsible and efficient media are a guarantee for public freedoms, the smooth running of democracy and social cohesion.” During the election campaign, they noted, the media would be essential in helping voters “gain insight into the profiles of public figures and politicians, as well as into their programmes. . . . This enables the public to express itself credibly during electoral and consultative events.”

The media were especially important in a country the size of Western Europe with few roads and railways, 1.5 million people uprooted from their homes by violence and no experience of political pluralism or elections. The large distances and high cost of travel, weak and poorly financed political parties and the continuing presence of armed, partisan militias in some areas meant that traditional campaigning by candidates and party officials would be limited. That placed an even greater burden on the media as the main vehicle for voter education and political campaigning.

Freedom of expression and the press, largely unknown during the dictatorial 30-year rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, was entrenched in the transition constitution. Article 27 established individual freedom of expression. Article 28 guaranteed press freedom, limited by the need to “safeguard public order [and] morality” and the rights of others. Clause 29 established a public “right to information.” It also required state-owned media to be objective and impartial and to provide fair access for “a plurality of opinions.” Oversight and regulation of the media was entrusted to the HAM, an official body composed of all parties in the transitional unity government and headed by a respected journalist and award-winning rights campaigner, Mr. Modeste Mutinga.

‘Irresponsible reporting’

Training increased in an effort to prepare the Congolese media for its new role as an instrument of democracy. The JED and the other media organizations sponsored many briefings and seminars for reporters, broadcasters and editors on the elections and the media’s ethical and professional obligations. The German Konrad Adenauer Foundation conducted a 12-day training course in June 2006 for 15 Congolese provincial journalists, a programme that included background on the electoral process, meetings with senior transition officials and the head of the national electoral commission, and training in interviewing, recording and editing techniques.

But in the end, noted Ms. Julia Craw-ford, Africa director for the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “while some media in the DRC have played an important role” in the process, “there were a lot of problems and a lot of irresponsible reporting.” Much of the media, particularly in Kinshasa, she said, were strongly partisan, and, in the view of many international and local observers, sometimes fanned sectarian divisions through slanted or false reporting.

Encouragingly, Ms. Crawford told Africa Renewal, “many DRC press freedom organizations, particularly JED, spearheaded the effort to highlight abuses, even as they advocated for more press freedom and greater professional responsibility.”

Many of the worst abuses seemed to occur at moments of crisis. During heavy fighting between ethnic militias in the eastern town of Bunia in 2003, JED President Donat M’baya Tshimanga reported, the Congolese media generated extensive coverage of the violence, but without sending reporters to the scene. “The media — and they may not even be aware of it — serve as a platform for the warlords, who use the rivalry between different ethnic groups in Bunia and the DRC only for their own profit. . . . The hate speeches of the conflict would not have had the same effect if the media had not agreed to play the role of mouthpiece” for the opposing sides.

In a special report on the DRC in 2004, the CPJ observed that national and local officials sometimes exceeded their authority under the transitional constitution to censor and punish unfavourable or incendiary reporting — taking radio and television stations off the air and threatening legal action against reporters in contravention of the agreement. The international press freedom group also documented instances of continued harassment and assault of journalists by militias and political parties throughout the transition.

Nor was the official media oversight body, the HAM, immune to criticism. In its November analysis of the media, the JED charged that “the struggle against incitement to hatred and violence, while noble in principle, has allowed the media regulator to exercise systematic censorship of the privately owned media, thereby restricting the democratic debate so greatly needed during the election period, while the state-owned media has been usurped by the ruling party.”

According to a report by the non-governmental International Crisis Group, based in Brussels, the HAM shut down a pro-government radio and television station in 2005 for 15 days for broadcasting a politician’s comments describing a mixed-race opponent as “a bat — half mouse, half bird” and urging government partisans to “trap it, burn it and eat it.” The same station broadcast another speaker’s call on party supporters to grab opposition leaders and “burn them with tyres around their necks.” In contrast, two opposition newspapers were shuttered for 90 days for contentious but less inflammatory reports alleging ongoing allegiances between Mr. Kabila and neighbouring Tanzania, where he grew up. Overall, concluded the JED, “a large number of Congolese media failed to live up to their role.”

Although the JED’s primary role is to protect press freedom and individual journalists from government censorship and harassment, noted Ms. Crawford, the organization has always pursued “a double-pronged approach: shouting to local and international media about abuses by the authorities . . . but at the same time pushing for more responsibility in the journalism profession.”

That approach was in large part a response to serious abuses by the media, she said. But in addition, “the JED has also said on numerous occasions that the entire press corps could find itself being penalized for the excesses of only some sections of the media.” Improving the quality and accuracy of reporting in the DRC, she observed, was one way to protect the press from government interference.

Entrenched obstacles

Despite the problems, the Congolese media produced a body of sound reporting and the transitional institutions often worked well in moving quickly against abuses. According to many observers, the tattered condition of the Congolese media meant that the situation could have been much worse.

In a detailed survey of the state of the Congolese media commissioned by the South African Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in late 2004, Mr. Claude Kabemba observed that while the DRC media was “one of the most diverse and free on the continent, the quality of information and the role of the media in the democratization process leaves much to be desired.”

Despite the presence of more than 200 different newspapers, 52 private television networks and some 250 private and community radio broadcasters, in addition to state radio and television, Mr. Kabemba asserted that few “capture the reality of the society.” Instead, these media outlets reflect “the political, religious and ethnic inclinations of their owners.” The profession itself, he said, is “divided and without vision” and is often marked by “a total disregard for ethics and professionalism.”

Part of the explanation is financial, as the steady decline in the country’s economic and social fortunes has taken an inevitable toll on the media industry. Printing presses and broadcasting equipment are often decades old, expensive to operate, difficult to repair and maintain and inadequate for meeting the information needs of a population of more than 50 million. Neither state television and radio nor the scores of private stations transmit nationally, as antiquated equipment and chaotic regulations limit their broadcast range.

Dire poverty is another major obstacle. Few of the country’s nearly 3,000 trained journalists earn a living wage. Instead, journalists are paid to write stories by the individuals or organizations they are covering — a practice known as le coupage (literally, “blending”). “Most journalists go around searching not for news but for people who can pay them to publish their stories,” Mr. Kabemba wrote. The resulting stories invariably reflect “what the person who pays the money wants to hear” and bring the profession into public disrepute.

Reforming the DRC’s economic and political culture to allow the media to play their part in development and nation-building will be a major challenge to the nation’s journalists, its fledgling democratic government and the international community. In his conclusion, Mr. Kabemba argues for a top-to-bottom overhaul of the industry, including massive retraining of staff, investment in modern printing presses and transmitters, refurbishment of the education system, adoption of new media laws and pay scales that can help insulate the press from undue political influence and the temptation of le coupage.

“The DRC is the principal reservoir of world strategic minerals which are the envy of both regional and international powers,” Mr. Kabemba concluded. The country “needs to be protected by a truly democratic state. . . . The media holds the crucial key in promoting the culture of democracy and good governance, but it needs the necessary support to play its role efficiently and correctly.”

The UN’s Radio Okapi

Given the shortcomings of the DRC’s national media, the dangerous divisions among Congolese and the enormous territory to monitor, the UN peacekeeping mission attaches great importance to the use of media to promote reconciliation and democracy. One result has been Radio Okapi, the innovative official MONUC radio station established jointly with a Swiss non-governmental organization, Fondation Hirondelle. Staffed almost entirely by Congolese journalists, Radio Okapi states that its mandate is “to inform the Congolese public and the international community of the process of the political transition” and to serve as a “communication relay” between MONUC and the Congolese public.

Broadcasting in the DRC’s five main languages and able to reach virtually every corner of the country through its network of transmitters, relay towers and shortwave equipment, Radio Okapi is the only media outlet with national reach. Its slogan, “breath of the DRC,” was soon associated with reliable news reporting and unbiased programming about the transition to democracy.

In contrast to much of the local media, Radio Okapi’s reporters are comparatively well paid and rigorously trained in journalistic ethics and reporting standards. Le coupage — accepting payment in return for favourable stories — is forbidden, as is editorializing on behalf of parties or individuals. The station pioneered a number of journalistic firsts in the DRC, including political debates, fair access to airtime for political parties and scientific opinion polling.

Radio Okapi’s status as MONUC’s official radio outlet has insulated editors and reporters from political influence and freed the station from dependence on wealthy patrons eager to promote their political views. Its emphasis on political impartiality, financial independence and high professional standards make it a model for journalism in the transition to Congolese democracy.